glory of god

glory of god

Monday, April 9, 2012

On Angels, the Empty Tomb, and Being Afraid: A Sermon for Easter Day

It is wonderful to share this Easter celebration of new life with you. It is wonderful to see you all, to be surrounded by beautiful flowers, Easter hats and dresses, to sing such grand music, and to have our hearts filled with joy and hope. And if there are young children in your home, I suspect that there was even more joy and hope this morning as kids tore into Easter treats—jelly beans, marshmallow peeps, and chocolate bunnies.

I always liked getting chocolate bunnies in my Easter baskets, but I don’t think I ever ate them that much, usually just the ears. My mom used to complain all the time that she would find these poor earless bunnies that had turned that chalky shade of white wrapped up in my sock drawer months and months after Easter, often next to equally sad headless chocolate Santas. I could never commit to a whole bunny (or a whole Santa). I liked smaller treats like peanut butter cups, malted milk balls, and my favorite—Russell Stover coconut chocolate nests, with jellybeans for eggs. The Easter bunny usually only brought one per kid in my house and one year my brother Andy stole mine out of my basket, and let’s just say it wasn’t very Eastery around the afterward. But then, I often stole peanut butter cups out of his Christmas stocking--and truth be told, I still do!

But you know, there’s a lot more that Christmas and Easter have in common, besides candy treats, happy kids, full churches and beautiful music. (Not to mention the stress of cleaning the house and having company over for a big dinner). There’s also long ago stories of miracles, stories of things that are hard to believe, stories of people who are amazed, and also stories of angels--angels who appear unexpectedly, who break into ordinary human life and say, “Do not be afraid.”

That’s really how this morning’s Easter gospel begins, too. “Do not be afraid,” the angel says to the women at the tomb. Probably a lot easier said than done, considering all that they had seen and experienced. Remember, these are the same women who had stayed with Jesus in his darkest hours, when the other disciples had fled and were in hiding, locked away in a room somewhere. But these women, they had witnessed it all. They were there. And there’s really no way to pretty up what happened on the Friday we call “Good.” It was humanity at our very, very worst.

And after his life was gone, these faithful, steadfast women had Jesus’ body taken down from the cross and they quickly found a place to bury him before sundown, before the Passover Sabbath began. They couldn’t complete their work of caring for him then because there wasn’t time. It had to wait until after the Sabbath rest. That’s why they were there so early on Sunday morning-- it was their first chance to go back and finish their work of caring for Jesus. I imagine that the intervening time was dreadful, as they replayed in their minds everything that had happened, over and over again. No doubt there were nightmares, if they got any sleep at all.

And after all that, the angel has the nerve to tell them not to be afraid. And not only that, but that the Jesus they seek is not even there where they had left him, but is risen. Risen. It’s unimaginable. They had seen all of it. They knew that Jesus was dead. If they knew anything, they knew that. And so, Mark’s gospel tells us, they were filled with fear. The angel’s message was too far fetched, and they ran off terrified. In the original, earliest version of this gospel, it just ended that way. With the women terrified. Now, that’s not a very satisfactory conclusion to a story—the empty tomb, the angel, and the women running away. It’s dramatic to be sure, but it doesn’t exactly fill you with Easter hope. So, later on, a new ending was added by another author, to try to complete the story, to tie up the loose ends. But it wasn’t there at first. At first, the women were just terrified.

I think that’s because the women at the tomb didn’t understand the angel’s message: “Do not be afraid.” They didn’t have any context for it. If Mary, Jesus’ mother, had been there, she probably would have understood, she would have remembered. Because, of course, when the angel appeared to her many years before he said the same thing: “Do not be afraid Mary, for I bring you good tidings of great joy.” The angels back then said the same thing to the shepherds in the fields, too. It seems that whenever angels appear with good news, of something miraculous and wonderful, but very hard to believe, they preface it with “Do not be afraid.”

We don’t quite know what the women did next. Mark’s gospel says they didn’t tell anyone, while other gospels say that they found Jesus’ male disciples—the ones who had locked themselves away, like Peter and who likewise had a hard time believing in the angel’s message. But maybe, maybe, they also found Jesus’ mother and told her what they had seen and heard. And if they did, I suspect that she would have shared what happened to her some 30 years before, how the angel had appeared and told her, too, not to be afraid. Maybe she encouraged these friends of Jesus to believe in the impossible, as she had learned to do. In John’s version of Easter story we read that Mary Magdalene went back and found Jesus there in the garden; although, she didn’t recognize him at first. She wanted to believe the angel’s message, but she was still afraid and it didn’t make sense.

There’s a lot in life that can be fearsome. There’s a lot that doesn’t make sense. But the good news of Easter, the reason we are here together on this beautiful spring morning, is the promise that whatever happens in life, we do not have to be afraid. We do not have to worry. And we do not have to run away, terrified. Because we remember, we believe, we know that on that first Easter morning so very long ago God broke into our fear. God changed the way things work. God brought new life and joy where once there was death and despair.

That’s what Easter is all about, much more than earless chocolate bunnies, coconut bird nests, colored eggs, and jellybeans, as special as those treats are. Easter is about turning the rules of the world inside out and upside down. It’s about taking what’s broken and making it whole again. It’s about new life, abundant life, resurrection life. The women who went to the tomb early on Sunday morning weren’t expecting that. But perhaps they should have, since Jesus’ whole life, from the very beginning, was about breaking rules, and seeing things differently, and doing things differently. Why should the end be any different?

They weren’t quite yet ready to hear this good news, to have their world turned inside out and upside down once more. But perhaps we are. Perhaps we are ready. Maybe that's why Mark’s gospel concludes in the dramatic, if unexpected way that it does. Not because the women running away is the end of the Jesus story. Not because Mark the Evangelist didn’t believe in the joy of resurrection. It most certainly is not the end. And he most certainly did believe.

But I think it may be written that way because the end of story hasn't been written yet. The good news continues. It continues with us as the evangelists, with us sharing and believing in the power of the resurrection. It is our story to tell today, as much as it was theirs 2,000 years ago. Because we know that when an angel appears and says, “Do not be afraid,” it means that something amazing, something unusual, something world-altering is about to happen. We know that it always means that good news, great news even, is coming.

And so, the Easter story continues with us, with us taking on the starring roles in the great drama of faith that began so long ago. It continues with us sharing the good news, the great joy, for all the people—that Christ is alive, that sin and death have no lasting power over us; and that new life, abundant life, resurrection life, God’s life, will always win out in the end. That’s why we are here this morning. That’s the message of Easter. That’s our story to tell, this beautiful spring day, and always.

Alleluia! Christ is risen. Happy Easter.

© The Rev. Matthew P. Cadwell

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